'As the earth and other elements are, in various ways, for the enjoyment of innumerable beings dwelling in all space, so may I be, in various ways, the means of sustenance for the living beings occupying space, for as long a time as all are not satisfied’ - Shantideva
Altruism, as a principle of action, can be defined in relative terms as an ‘unselfish regard and concern for others’, and every day we see examples of this, all around the world. Global awareness and concern for fundamental human rights and the wellbeing of others expresses itself through various formats in our local communities and the international arena, where hundred of thousands of people and organisations continue to work tirelessly to assist the plight of people and communities living in disadvantaged conditions.
It is evidenced in the spontaneous outpouring of collective concern, grief and support for the victims and survivors of war, famine and disease, natural and man made disasters. And on a lesser scale, through small - and sometimes random, acts of kindness. But how can we define and perceive altruism from a spiritual perspective, and what is at the heart of its application in the world, in terms of the evolution of humanity?
In addition to the deep concern and regard for others in need, to fully transcend the barriers and bias’s that continue to separate all people and cultures, the drive that compels individuals or groups to altruistic action or service must include the innate recognition of our shared humanity. For at any time, should circumstances be different or when conditions change, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
It is here, within that recognition and all-encompassing perspective, that an ultimate Truth manifests and in doing so begins to assist the spiritual evolution of humanity. Dass talks of this Truth in his book How can I help?, ‘Those who choose to enter the arena of social action must learn to go deep to the place where we are One. And the vision must be profound and all-inclusive, an affirmation of heart and soul…’
This sentiment is echoed by Chapotin - international coordinator of The Theosophical Order of Service, who speaks of a framework within the Order ‘in which social action as spiritual practice is supported and nurtured’. Throughout the world members are ‘deeply involved in hands-on service as a natural part of their spiritual practice, as a natural part of their expression of the ideal of Universal Brotherhood without distinction’ (Theosophia, Vol. 71, NZ. 2010).
In Mahayana Buddhism the development and practice of Bodhicitta - ‘awakened mind’, epitomizes this ideal. Motivation in terms of the application of altruism as a spiritual practice is of primary importance. For without ‘pure’ motivation, even kind intentions and compassionate acts can often be driven by self-serving and seeking attitudes such as praise, recognition, acknowledgement and self gratification.
The Buddha emphasized, “the validity and benefit of any expression, activity, outward appearance, or practice in the world is totally dependent on the purpose, the philosophy and the motivation behind it.” (cited p.26 Tai Situpa, Awakening the Sleeping Buddha)
Recognition of ‘Oneness‘, without bias of any form, is a fundamental and inherent part of Bodhicitta, which moves beyond a conceptual understanding of the shared commonalities of the human condition, including those triumphs, trials and tragedies that are associated with our shared existence.
Awareness and knowledge of the ‘limitless potential’ that dwells within each individual is both the heart and foundation from which Bodhicitta blooms. The ancient eastern symbolism attached to the lotus has been widely used to depict this inherent spiritual quality. Rising from the muddy waters, the lotus bud unfolds, its beauty and perfection unstained by its murky environment.
Likewise, trapped in a state of conditioned existence, engaged and participating in self centered beliefs, thoughts and actions which often result in suffering, each one of us has a pristine, pure, enlightened nature, which given the right conditions, manifests and liberates. Residing deep within, that divine consciousness is recognized and spoken of in the famous Buddhist mantra Om mani padme hum - ‘the jewel in the heart of the lotus’.
Bodhicitta springs forth following a period of profound awakening - often generated over many lifetimes. It elevates the practitioner to a highly evolved level of spiritual awareness. Motivated by the arising of universal compassion, full liberation for oneself in order to be of maximum service to the spiritual well-being of others, generates within the practitioner a readiness to assist, regardless of consequences. Ultimate service to others becomes a primary focus for spiritual practice and growth.
The attainment of Bodhicitta is also assisted by the knowledge and recognition of the tenuous fragility associated with human existence. Awareness that any moment life can be taken from us, generates within the practitioner, deep appreciation for the precious opportunity human rebirth provides - the chance to engage in spiritual practice to attain full liberation.
Ethical and moral behaviour and practice inform and shape all thought and action in order to eliminate negative karma - causes and conditions which perpetuate and determine the state of our current and future rebirths. The attainment of full spiritual enlightenment is seen as the only way to transcend suffering in its entirety, so freeing us from this continuous cycle.
The development of specific human virtues and attributes are considered of paramount importance. ‘Limitless’ in their potential, particular qualities such as equanimity, loving kindness, compassion and joy are considered primary virtues which assist the development of Bodhicitta. The generation and application of these four virtues once again centers the practitioners self-less thoughts and subsequent actions on and around how best to view and serve the well-being of others.
Bodhisattva’s - those with ‘awakened essence’, such as the Buddha, epitomize and embody the full expression of this Mahayana ideal. Having attained full enlightenment, such individuals choose to remain in the world voluntarily, to assist humanity in its ultimate spiritual quest.
As the principles and ideals behind the practice of Bodhicitta show, the mindful, 'self-less' dedication of our thoughts, efforts and actions - spiritual and otherwise, for the betterment of all, allows us to generate those conditions within which foster the development, practice and perfection of altruism.
The benefit is twofold. For in doing so we nuture and ready the ground for the eventual realisation and blossoming of the boundless potential at the very core of our Being, ‘that shining jewel residing deep within the heart of the lotus’.
Copyright, S.L. 2012